The loss of a loved one can be one of the most emotionally challenging things for anyone to face. Unfortunately, before many people have a chance to mourn this loss, they are thrust into the financial aspects of the deceased life. Social security, pension benefits, investment accounts, real estate, automobiles, businesses – the list goes on and on. Settling a loved one’s estate can be complicated and too often, people pass away and leave their finances in disarray for the executor and beneficiaries to deal with. Rather than leaving mountains of paperwork and stress for loved ones, why not take simple steps to simplify your estate today?
Update your will
The first step in simplifying your estate is an obvious, yet overlooked strategy – complete and update your will. Surprisingly, statistics from LexisNexis suggest that nearly 55 percent of Americans do not have a will or estate plan. Why do so few complete their will? People often associate death with the creation of a will and they simply do not want to address it. Uncertainties regarding the guardianship of children, divorce and special needs circumstances may also contribute to this procrastination. Not only does passing away intestate (without a will) create unnecessary burden for your executor, it can also lead to conflict within the family as your wishes are not clearly defined. Clearly spelling out your wishes can save time while minimizing family drama that may have otherwise ensued. After updating your will, consider establishing a power of attorney, health care directive or living will and any other estate planning strategies that may be necessary. Finally, don’t forget to name successor executors, POAs, trustees and guardians – there are times when a plan “B” will be necessary.
From collecting and distributing assets to paying creditors, taxes and filing final tax returns, executors have a significant task ahead of them. Getting organized financially can make these tasks much easier. Consider putting together a detailed list for your executor that includes contact numbers and statements for all banking and investment accounts, liabilities including mortgages, credit cards auto loans, insurance policies, pension plans, location and copies of important documents and a list of key professionals including attorneys, financial advisers and accountants. Also, be sure to include login credentials (passwords) for all online accounts. Blake Lawrence, Esq, Partner in the Tax and Estate Planning Department at Davison, Eastman, Munoz, Lederman & Paone notes, “Traditionally, people would wait for the monthly or quarterly statement to come in the mail. Today people are paying bills online and receiving statements electronically so it is equally, if not more important to have a safe place for a loved one to access all of the passwords for accounts.” Remember, organizing and making provisions for your digital life is important too.
As you might imagine, it is common for people to collect a significant number of financial accounts and property over the course of their lifetime. While holding your assets at multiple financial institutions may be necessary, there may be some circumstances where simplifying and consolidating your finances may be helpful. Orphaned retirement accounts from past employers, investment accounts, checking, savings & CDs held at multiple financial institutions, savings bonds that may no longer be paying interest, and any other assets should be reviewed to see where consolidation makes sense. Not only can getting organized and simplifying your financial life be beneficial today, it may also save your executor a significant amount of time and stress in the future. According to Christina D. Hardman-O'Neal, Esq, Partner in the Tax & Estate Planning Department of Davison, Eastman, Munoz, Lederman & Paone team, “Your Executor will be grieving your loss at the same time as they must take care of the business of the estate. Staying organized during your lifetime will go a long way to helping your survivors long after you have passed.”
Update beneficiaries and ownership
One of the biggest misconceptions is that a will has the ultimate control of how your assets are distributed. Will substitutes such as POD, TOD and beneficiary designations can supersede the will and it is important to ensure that they are up-to-date and in alignment with your wishes. This is especially important for retirement accounts. Daniel D. Olszak, Jr, Esq.,CELA, Of Counsel in the Tax and Estate Planning Department of Davison, Eastman, Munoz, Lederman & Paone team notes, “If there is no beneficiary designation, the plan will be paid to your estate. Such a payment will have the most negative income tax consequences possible, eliminate all beneficiary options and in many cases, distort your entire estate plan.” Bottom line – be sure that all beneficiary designations are on file and up-to-date.
It may also be important to review the ownership of accounts and assets. Should assets be held individually, jointly or by a trust? Are assets currently titled in accordance with your estate plan? It is critical to address ownership changes in advance as it too, may help simplify the estate settlement process.
Choosing the right executor is important and taking a proactive approach with your estate may help make the process much easier for everyone involved. Updating your estate plan, organizing and consolidating assets, and updating ownership and beneficiary designations are a few simple, yet effective ways to simplify your estate. Since everyone’s situation is unique, consider speaking to your attorney and financial adviser to determine the best approach for you.